Philly ballot questions for the 2019 general election, explained

Updated Oct. 30.

You won’t just get the opportunity to vote for your elected officials on Nov. 5. This Election Day. You’ll also be expected to weigh in on a few additional topics that affect how city and state government works.

Ballot questions give officials the chance to pose questions directly to voters. This time around you’ll have three to answer — and to be clear, these are different than the questions you voted on in the May primary.


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From diversifying city contracts to new rights for crime victims to borrowing more cash for city programs, here are the questions you can expect to see on the ballot, and what each one means.

Should voters approve this ballot question, the city’s Office of Procurement will increase the minimum threshold for requests for proposals from $34,000 to $75,000 for all business, and $100,000 for small businesses.

What does that actually mean? If the city needs a contractor to get some work done, the RFP process mandates the city choose the contractor who provides the best value. That doesn’t leave any room to consider the inclusion of diverse entrepreneurs or small businesses — so the lucrative contracts usually go to big businesses.

If the city raises the threshold, Councilmember Derek Green says it’ll remove the RFP barrier and allow city employees to use their discretion, thereby increasing the chance of awarding contracts to more small businesses within a much more diverse pool of ownership.

This is the most contested of the three public proposals you’ll see on the Nov. 5 general election ballot. The question at hand is whether or not the state should grant crime victims new constitutional rights — just like those accused of committing crimes have certain rights under the state’s governing text.

Less than a week before Election Day, however, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued an injunction blocking the proposed amendment should voters pass it, citing grave concerns over the state’s criminal justice system writ large.

Pennsylvania isn’t the first to propose this amendment to its state constitution. There’s an ongoing national campaign for what’s known as Marsy’s Law. If passed, Pa. would become one of at least a dozen other states to have some version of it. The campaign takes its name from Marsalee Nicholas, a California college student who was stalked and murdered by her boyfriend in 1983. Her parents were later confronted by their daughter’s accused murdered in a local store — and were shocked because they were unaware he had been released on bail. Now, the deceased woman’s brother, tech billionaire Henry Nicholas, is funding a campaign to ensure more rights for crime victims.

Under the language drafted by Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office, the amendment would prevent such an affront from happening. It would guarantee that victims of a crime and “any person who was directly harmed by it” receive notifications of key steps throughout the prosecution, from arrest to trial.

Over the last two years, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office has come under fire for its handling of crime victims and their families, particularly when it comes to notifying them of key happenings in the case.

But civil liberties advocates have sounded the alarm over the proposed change.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit earlier this month asking a state judge to remove the question from the Nov. 5 ballot, the Inquirer reported. Lorraine Haw, a Philadelphia resident on whose behalf the complaint was filed, said the implications are overly broad. The ballot question is just 72 words, and even if you look at the “Plain English” version available to voters, there is no explanation of what types of crimes the proposed constitutional amendment would cover.

As a single ballot question, the complaint argues, voters do not have the right to choose whether some crimes should be allowed these protections and others not — and those changes should be considered separately, the complaint argues.

Under the proposed changes, victims would also be free to “refuse an interview, deposition or other discovery request made by the accused or any person acting on behalf of the accused.” The amendment doesn’t provide any exceptions to these broad circumstances, the Inquirer noted, nor how such a rule would be implemented.

In its injunction ruling on Oct. 30, the state Supreme Court agues the constitutional changes would spell disaster for the criminal justice system as is. Wrote one judge: the Marsy’s Law amendment “immediately, profoundly, and irreparably impact individuals who are accused of crimes, the criminal justice system as a whole, and most likely victims as well.”

This is your standard “let us have some money” question. Basically, this is Mayor Kenney asking voters directly whether they’ll authorize the city to borrow to fund various programs. It’s very common — there’s been a bond question like this, same exact wording and format, every year for the past two decades. This time around, the administration is asking for a $185 million loan.

From last year, the Inquirer has a helpful primer on this boilerplate ballot question. A few key points:

  • That asking price sounds a little steep, but it should be considered in context: it’s 4% of the city’s nearly $5 billion budget.
  • Still, it would add to the city’s outstanding debt of $5.5 billion to be paid through 2047
  • Kenney’s seeking a little more than last year’s $181 million bond
  • Overall, our current mayor has asked for more money in bonds than his predecessor Michael Nutter